Southern discomfort

Last Tuesday, when most of the country was training its attention on the presidential contest in Pennsylvania, Republicans were suffering yet another nightmare congressional election in supposedly friendly territory. And while Pennsylvania garnered the headlines, the relatively obscure House election may have a more lasting impact on the 2008 cycle.

As I discussed last week, Mississippi’s 1st congressional district held a special election to replace recently appointed Sen. Roger Wicker (R). This is a district in a state and region that has trended strongly Republican for the past several decades — a district that Bush won by a 62-37 margin in 2004.

Yet the nearly broke National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) was forced to dump over 4 percent of its total treasury to try and rescue what should’ve been an easy hold. And it failed.

When the smoke cleared, Democrat Travis Childers had garnered 49 percent of the vote to Republican Greg Davis’s 46, triggering a runoff election on May 13. Childers fell a mere 409 votes short of winning the election outright and obviating the need for a runoff. Moreover, the combined Democratic vote in the open primary totaled over 50 percent. It was, in short, not a good night for Republicans.

In some ways, this was the worst possible scenario for the GOP. The NRCC reported just $7.2 million cash on hand at the end of March, compared to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) $44.3 million. An outright defeat on Tuesday would have at least allowed the NRCC to focus its short-term efforts on fundraising. Instead, they’re now forced to dump ever-scarcer resources into yet another unexpectedly desperate battle. As of last Friday, Republicans had blown nearly $600,000 on the district, and columnist Robert Novak reported that Republican strategists expect to spend at least $1 million to try and hold the seat — a seat that, if won by Childers, would be the seventh most conservative district held by the resurgent Democratic Party.

It doesn’t get better for the GOP. Next Tuesday will feature yet another special election, in the neighboring Louisiana 6th congressional district. Democratic candidate Dan Cazayoux leads in internal polling against Republican Woody Jenkins, who has ties to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

Luckily for the NRCC, outside groups like Club for Growth and Freedom’s Watch have spent about $800,000 (and counting) to take spending pressure off the GOP. (Unluckily for the GOP and its allies, the bailout may well be illegal, as alleged by the DCCC in a Federal Election Commission complaint against the advocacy groups.) Despite the attempted rescue, the GOP has now wasted $300,000 in a seat it is likely to surrender.

Losing either Mississippi’s 1st or Louisiana’s 6th would shatter NRCC morale, which is already at rock bottom. Losing both races could break the NRCC bank, with donors deciding to hold onto their dollars until the next election cycle.

But it’s not all bad for the GOP. The Mississippi race is proving a laboratory, of sorts, featuring the first Republican effort to smear a Democratic candidate by tying him to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). In an ad currently running in the district, an announcer says:

“When Obama’s pastor cursed America, blaming us for 9/11, Childers said nothing. When Obama ridiculed rural folks for clinging to guns and religion, Childers said nothing. He took Obama’s endorsement over our conservative values. Conservatives just can’t trust Travis Childers.”

While numerous factors are at play in the race, this ad likely will feature disproportionately in post-mortems. Consequently, a relative handful of Mississippi voters will likely determine how much of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright we end up seeing in attack ads this fall.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos .